Advances in Motor Drives and Robotics: The Future is Here

Kevin Parmenter, Director, Applications Engineering. TSC, America



If the cost/benefit ratio for new technology can’t be justified, it won’t be adopted. Case in point: Not long ago, our industry dreamed of using variable speed motor drives for appliances and consumer HVAC systems when, in reality, the cost of these electronics was often higher than the end product. We knew in reality that these systems were reserved for large motors for industrial applications, not the commercial market. Similarly, the first robots were only used by the automotive industry, which could justify the cost benefit of replacing human labor with robots on the vehicle assembly line. While we envisioned a “Jetsons” future where robot maids did our housework, we realized that the actual robotic systems – which were costlier, larger and heavier than the kitchen itself – wouldn’t be washing our dishes any time soon.  

Over the years the costs of motor drives systems have come down and integration has gone up. This is due to advancements in small and inexpensive motor driver modules that mean complete motor drive stages are tested and ready to go. Also, the “make vs. buy” approach allows applications engineers cost-saving choices: design your own motor drive or buy one ready to go and integrate it into your system. Additionally, the cost of processing power plummeted, such that a 32-bit ARM core processor with peripherals optimized for motor drive functions costs much less than a candy bar and can often replace some 8-bit processors. This is key for designers who think they don’t need that much processing power at the start of a project, but due to market pressures, end up adding functionality like WiFi interfaces and other features.

Today’s power electronics industry is a different world. There is no excuse not to integrate a motor drive in many applications where it was once cost prohibitive. We have the ability to use motor drive electronics in consumer appliances both integrated in the motor and externally. Meanwhile, both voluntary and mandatory global energy efficiency regulations are driving applications’ power electronics integration in new ways. And, in some cases, energy-efficiency rebates are available to offset the cost of replacing an existing system for a newer, more efficient one. As a result, the benefits of motor control that were once reserved for high-end applications now enjoy a wide audience: HVAC, pool pumps, consumer and commercial refrigeration systems, and more.

Happily, these motor drive technologies are finally being applied to a wide range of applications. By driving the costs down, technologies that were once only used to automate factory floors are now found in home appliances. The unattainable home robot now cleans your floors and entertains – or torments –your pet at the same time.

Thanks to the electronics industry, which consistently offers more for less as time goes on, the cost benefit/ratio of motor control and robotics has hit a point where you can’t stop its adoption. In both industrial as well as consumer applications, we are closer to Rosie the robot than ever before.